Feds: Administration Can Keep Targeting ‘Priority’ and ‘Focus’ Schools

John Mooney | July 24, 2015 | Education
State DOE revises accountability system for state-run districts, severely challenged schools

U.S. Department of Education
The Christie administration has won the federal Department of Education’s approval to continue using its accountability system to target “priority” and “focus” schools, with some adjustments for state-operated districts and others with the highest needs.

The administration had to apply to the feds to renew its waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act and extend its policy of intervening in schools it deems the lowest performing.

The very lowest-scoring are so-called priority schools; those with specific achievement gaps are “focus schools.” The heart of the administration’s plan has been to use regional achievement centers to provide specialized assistance to these schools.

But in the latest application, the administration tweaked the model, removing the state-operated districts from the regional approach and assigning them their own interventions.

The state-operated districts — Newark, Paterson, Jersey City, and Camden — are where the vast preponderance of troubled schools are located.

The administration also set up a third tier of schools that it defines as those with the “highest need and lowest capacity” for improvement.

The Obama administration and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went along with the plan, continuing a waiver process that has all but sidestepped existing law under No Child Left Behind. Congress is in the midst of reauthorizing the statute, although it still faces some significant barriers.

“With this renewal, New Jersey will be able to continue implementing its plans to promote innovative, locally tailored strategies to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction,” wrote Ann Whalen, acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, in the renewal letter.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe and his department described the approval as an endorsement of Gov. Chris Christie’s “bold endorsement reforms.”

“New Jersey can take pride knowing that our efforts are leading to real improvements in student learning,” Hespe said in announcing the approval.

“The flexibility allows New Jersey to continue to address the unique needs of our schools and students, and it helps us continue to focus on our goal that every child ultimately graduates prepared for success in college and career.”

There had been some question as to whether the waiver would be granted, after the federal education department was critical of the state last month for not following its own reform path in Newark, as outlined in its previous waiver request.

Under former Superintendent Cami Anderson, the district had all but abandoned the use of the RAC’s and pursued its own interventions in its own category of “renew” schools.

In addition, the district has been the subject of federal civil rights complaints that it was directing the harshest measures against schools with predominantly minority enrollments.

The Education Law Center has led some of the complaints and had urged the federal department to reject the waiver.

Yesterday, executive director David Sciarra said in an emailed statement: “Secretary Duncan should not have approved the waiver given the overwhelming evidence that the Christie Administration has made no progress in improving Newark and Camden priority and focus schools.”

“Even worse, the Secretary has sanctioned turning over improvement efforts to the very State Operated districts responsible for the low performance of these schools in the first place.”